DODGEVILLE, Wis. — There is no question that Federica Marchionni has put her stamp on Lands' End. There is, however, sharp debate about whether that's been a good thing.
Brought in to polish the lackluster performance of the classic-clothing retailer, Marchionni — described by supporters as tough and visionary, by detractors as cutting and headstrong — has indeed shaken things up in Dodgeville.
But the firm's financial performance in her first year has been downbeat, and so are some of the assessments of her leadership.
"You've seen Devil Wears Prada?" said a now-departed Lands' End employee who chose to leave the company, referring to the movie in which Meryl Streep portrays an icy and imperious fashion magazine editor. "... Well, that's her."
The former employee was among four who spoke to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Marchionni and her leadership of Lands' End, on condition that they not be identified. A current employee also was interviewed but asked not to be quoted.
"She's a princess," said another former Lands' Ender who chose to leave. "And that just doesn't fly in Madison and Dodgeville."
But another person, who also left of his own accord, sees Marchionni is battling an entrenched old guard, some of them actively trying to undermine her, as she seeks to bring change to a firm that needs it.
"She's tough," he said. "She had a vision that went against what conventional Lands' End wisdom believed in, and also, she was disrupting the hierarchy ... People like being in the high-end spots and just cruising right along, and that wasn't her mode."
In an interview Friday, Marchionni said she is indeed tough, but fair.
"When people talk to me, I challenge them," she said. "They used not to be challenged. And I strive for the excellence."
An odd couple from the start
From the beginning, Marchionni and Lands' End struck some as an odd couple — the glamorous, Italian-born New Yorker, brought in from luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana to run the Dodgeville-based retailer of cable-knit sweaters and button-down Oxford shirts.
If she was red stilettos, Lands' End was a pair of sensible shoes.
But it's at least arguable that the contrast was just what the Lands' End board — or more likely powerful shareholder Edward S. Lampert, the hedge-fund billionaire who controls 53.8% of the company's stock — was looking for.
"Eddie likes flash and fashion," one former employee said. "He wanted a fashion brand. That was very clear to many of us."
In any event, in February 2015, Marchionni took the reins in Dodgeville. Sort of.
Her employment agreement specified that she would not have to move to the southwestern Wisconsin city of 4,700 residents, nor would she be required to perform most of her duties there. Her principal workplace, the agreement said, would be in metropolitan New York.
That, said the former employee who counts himself as a Marchionni supporter, was a fundamental mistake.
"I don't believe, I truly in my heart of hearts don't believe (that) a lot of the nonsense, of sort of the subterfuge on the strategy, would have occurred had she been more present in Dodgeville more regularly," he said.
With Marchionni typically absent from headquarters, he said, communication suffered. It also may have bred some resentment.
"You know, you come here and you adjust yourself and you embrace the culture and the people and you become a Midwesterner," one of the Marchionni critics said. "And if you don't, you don't belong working at Lands' End."
But while Marchionni may not be a regular at Bob's Bitchin' BBQ downtown, there's no doubt who's in charge at the sprawling complex at the north edge of Dodgeville, where most of the company's roughly 4,000 Wisconsin employees work.
Almost everyone interviewed said Marchionni can be verbally biting.
"She would periodically call ideas stupid in an open room — that's probably not ideal," said the former employee who remains a supporter.
That sort of thing, however, can be expected from a CEO, he added.
"She could be firm and tough," he said. "I never really saw raw abrasiveness. Yeah, I saw some people get pinched, but mostly for a reason."
The critics, meanwhile, said Marchionni has little interest in hearing input from others.
"There were many times," one said, "where she would say 'I can't listen to all your opinions because it will slow me down; I don't have time to be slowed down.'"
A Gloria Steinem misstep
One instance where slowing down might have been best: The decision to feature a Marchionni interview with noted feminist — and abortion-rights advocate — Gloria Steinem in Lands' End's spring catalog.
It's hard to imagine that someone on the marketing team didn't question a plan that clearly would associate a classic-clothing retailer with such a divisive issue as abortion.
But the plan — Marchionni's plan, according to one of the critics — went forward, and proved to be a public relations mess.
First, the feature angered abortion foes and threatened the company's school uniform business. Then, after Lands' End quickly backpedaled amid the blowback — issuing an apology and erasing references to Steinem from its website — abortion-rights people lambasted the firm.
Marchionni said she does listen, but that she also doesn't hesitate to challenge arguments.
"I never take a decision without talking and discussing with them," she said. "Now, there are people who are not bringing at the table strong elements to support their point of view — it's very much, 'I used to do certain things,' and that's the point when I said to you about challenging them."
Marchionni said Lands' End once was known for innovation, but had "lost that leadership."
Though the firm does much of its business online, for example, it never invested in social media, she said. And it is only now developing a mobile application.
"I have strong opinions, yes, I do," Marchionni said. "Because I know this business. I know this market. And, again, I think I can challenge them."
Brand saw flat sales
Lands' End has hardly been a retail star in recent years.
From 2011 through 2014, the year before Marchionni became CEO, sales fell nearly 10%. The firm was one of just three among 30 Nasdaq-traded apparel retailers to post declining sales over the three-year period.
During Marchionni's first year, the pace of the falloff quickened, with sales dropping 8.7% in fiscal 2015. Amid that performance, employees were told last week that there will be no raises in 2016.
Marchionni said she expects to see "incremental improvement" in Lands' End's results beginning in the second quarter.
"But to unlock full potential as I'm trying to do, building a stronger foundation," she said. "... it takes time."
Her most prominent initiative, a new line of clothing — pricier and more stylish than the traditional Lands' End offerings and designed to attract a younger customer — took a year to launch.
One of the critics predicted the apparel won't have broad appeal, saying "it's fit on Italian models that are basically the size of Federica, so it doesn't fit much of the U.S. customer base."
But that's very much an open question. The new collection, called Canvas by Lands' End, was launched April 6 — hardly enough time for meaningful judgments on its performance.
The Marchionni supporter said he liked the idea that she came in ready to shake things up and try new approaches.
Marchionni is "a visionary," he said, and if she has her quirks, so do all CEOs — "part of the reason why they got to where they got."
He believes the perceptions of arrogance are misplaced, and that there has been something of a culture gap. Besides the fact that she's from Italy, Marchionni's English is not flawless. Sometimes, the former employee said, misunderstandings arose.
His departure was prompted by personal circumstances and office politics, but a lesser reason was concern that Marchionni might not be a long-term CEO.
A new executive arrives
Sparking that concern: The appointment in January of James Gooch, a former chief executive with RadioShack and DeMoulas supermarkets, as Lands' End's new chief financial and chief operating officer.
The former employee said Gooch struck him as someone hired by the board of directors, not Marchionni, and a sign that she might be "losing some ground."
That remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Gooch is coming in on terms much different from those governing Marchionni regarding where they work.
In a filing with securities regulators giving notice of Gooch's appointment and describing his employment agreement, Lands' End said his "primary workplace location will be Dodgeville, Wisconsin."
The filing also said he will receive relocation benefits, "as Mr. Gooch has agreed that he will obtain permanent housing in the Dodgeville, Wisconsin area."
Marchionni said she believes she has the board's support, and plans to be at Lands' End for some time to come.
Pointing to such challenges as decreased consumer spending, heightened online competition and warmer winter weather that dampens apparel sales, Marchionni said it is the market, not her, that is fierce.
An example of her humility, she said, is that she considered changing her name to something that would be easier for people to pronounce. Then she discovered that her name means "peaceful ruler."
"And I say, it's so me. I am a ruler, yes I am. But I am doing in a peaceful way. I want everybody in the end to feel enriched by the things that I'm giving them.
"I said (to) them from the first day, "I work for you, because in the end the company will succeed, all of you will succeed.'"
Follow Rick Romell on Twitter: @RickRomell